A Latino couple registering to vote in Florida, a state where Hispanics will play a crucial role in the election. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Latino votes pivotal in battlegrounds of Florida, Virginia, Ohio and North Carolina

When it comes to the high-stakes election this November, not all states are ‘created equal.’  A number of “battleground” states are crucial for the candidates to win, and Latinos in these states have seen a barrage of ads, door to door campaigning, phone calls and rallies.  Topping the list of “must-win” states in November is Florida, and Latinos here could very well determine who becomes the next U.S. president.

According to the new NBC News/WSJ poll, the race in Florida is getting even tighter. In Florida, Obama leads 47 percent to 46 percent, down from 49 percent to 45 percent in mid-September. So here, the Latino vote is being closely scrutinized.

“Florida is one of the battleground states which has seen its population grow and also change in the last 20 years,” says Pew Hispanic associate director Mark Hugo López, author of a newly released Pew Hispanic report on Latino voting trends.  According to the report, over one and a half million Floridian Latinos were registered to vote, making up 13.5 percent of the state’s over 11 million registered voters.  Another half million Latinos, however, were eligible to vote in the Sunshine state but had not been registered as of July. Latino civil rights groups, as well as both parties’ campaigns, have been busy in the last few months trying to register new voters.

In central Florida, where the Puerto Rican population has increased dramatically in the last decade, the presidential and vice presidential candidates, as well as Latino politicians from the U.S. and Puerto Rico have made the Orlando area a regular destination. According to Pew Hispanic, 38 percent of  Florida Hispanics are registered as Democrats and 30 percent as Republicans, a wider tilt to Democrats than in 2008 or 2010.

The latest NBC News/WSJ poll also puts Virginia in a very tight race. According to the poll, Obama is up 48 percent to 46 percent. Last month, Obama led 49 percent to 45 percent in the Old Dominion state. Latinos make up about 8 percent of the state’s population, and about 4 percent of its eligible voters.  The Latino eligible voter population has increased by 76 percent in the last decade, according to Latino Decisions figures.

The latest NBC News/WSJ poll also looked at Ohio.  Here President Obama has a stronger lead. Obama holds a 51 percent to 43 percent lead among likely voters, which is relatively unchanged from his 50 percent to 43 percent lead three weeks ago. Latinos are a growing presence in the state, though currently they make up 2 percent of the eligible voting population.  If the race gets tighter, the participation of the over 160 thousand eligible voters could make a difference, says analysts.

A state with much fewer Latinos – but a growing influence – is North Carolina. “I think North Carolina is going to end up being the marquee Latino influence state; it has the trajectory of a Nevada,” says political scientist and Latino Decisions principal Matt Barreto.  Right now, Hispanics make up 8 percent of  North Carolina’s population and about 3 percent of its registered voters, but as more Latinos turn 18, Barreto says the Latino electorate could hit 10% of the state in the next decade.  In the latest NBC News/WSJ poll, North Carolina is in a tight race, with Obama a couple of points ahead. In 2008, Obama won North Carolina by only 14,000 votes.  So with over one hundred thousand Hispanic registered voters, Latino participation in this battleground state is being closely tracked.

In some of these three battleground states, the Hispanic vote may not be large, but it is critical. “Latino voting is more pivotal when the Latino vote share exceeds the state’s likely margin,” explains Stanford University political scientist and Latino Decisions principal Gary Segura.  “If Latinos are 3 percent of the voters in a state where one and a half percentage votes separates the winners from the losers, the Latino vote becomes really interesting,” Segura says.

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